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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UWFox Valley Theatre’s ‘Tarzan’ high flying, indeed

The musical turns on Phil Collins songs in the famed fable of an ape man.

MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – Immediately, UWFox Valley Theatre’s “Tarzan: The Stage Musical” (4½ stars out of 5) grabs attention. The stage is filled with a huge map of Africa. It’s so big – approximately 25 by 35 feet – that it looms. A soundtrack with the volume turned up to “imposing” bears down with sounds of rhythmic, restless music of an African jungle. The music drives on relentlessly. The overall effect is an event is about to happen. What happens is a theatrical experience not quite like any other to hit a stage in this region.

“Tarzan: The Stage Musical” is filled with flying – flying of the human kind, with performers swinging over the stage and over the audience by way of intricately designed patterns. The show has an air traffic controller. Ha ha, that’s a joke, but the flyways are busy at times in Perry Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communications Arts Center.

The first flying is perhaps the most fascinating. It comes as the setup of how Tarzan came to be an ape man. The show with book by David Henry Hwang draws from the Disney movie (pop songwriter Phil Collins adding nine songs to the five he wrote for the film), which drew from the fictional writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs about an orphaned human baby raised by apes. The first book came out in 1912. In the show, a sailing ship is projected over the massive map of Africa. There’s a storm. The ship sinks, and we see a man and a woman with a baby under water. Or an illusion thereof. In life, the performers are being flown behind the see-through screen. It’s a wonderful effect as the man seems to swim down to the woman and baby to rescue them from the sea floor and bring them to the surface. Action continues into the orphaning of the baby and his nurturing by a mother ape that has recently lost an infant ape to a leopard.

Here everything gets quite fanciful. Apes talk. Apes sing. Today’s vocabulary word: anthropomorphizing – attributing human form or personality to an animal (or anything non-human). The apes in the show move around sideways, hopping in a slouch with knuckles on the ground. One ape realizes the oddball among them, the kid with no hair and white skin, can figure things out better than he, and he, Terk, considers himself the brightest of the bunch. The white-skinned kid moves around like the other apes, sideways on the knuckles.

Stepping back and peering at “Tarzan: The Stage Musical,” it is a strange show. Singing gorillas. Hmm.

The show simply re-tells the Tarzan tale in a new way, not leaving any kernels of thought. It’s a cartoony kind of diversion. And that’s entertainment enough.

This production includes strong characterizations in the prime roles. Willie Ithier is nimble of voice and body as Tarzan. Ithier has intensity in his voice when he sings alone or in duet with Bess Calhoun as Jane. Calhoun has a bright voice that’s nicely matched for the Tarzan-Jane song, “For the First Time.” Alona Havel, as Tarzan’s ape mother, brings a pensive/yearning quality to the showcase songs “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “Sure as the Sun Turn to the Moon.” Leland Raymond is dynamic of character, physical presence and humor as Terk, Tarzan’s smart alec ape buddy/“mentor.”

Performing well in other key roles are Brad Esquivel as the calculating hunter, Scott Crane as Jane’s fussbudget father and Rob Konitzer as the aging ape patriarch.

Choreography fires up the ensemble, especially in the catchy “Trashin’ the Camp” that opens the second act.

“Tarzan: The Stage Musical” survived a year on Broadway, which may have been a miracle. The Disney brand is both wonderful and limiting at the same time. I sensed that in the music of Phil Collins. While it expresses the characters’ emotions and suits the story, it feels contained/impeded. On the other hand, it’s a terrific show for the UWFox Valley Theatre to try its hand at – high degree of difficulty, family style story, a bunch of known songs, excitement in the flying, an audience draw (check ticket availability for the coming performances through Saturday, March 8; info: www.uwfoxtheatre.com). Director Erick James Gyrion and company are up to the exciting challenge.

***

Cast: Tarzan, Willie Ithier; Jane, Bess Calhoun; Terk, Leland Raymond; Young Tarzan, Drew Pollard; Kala, Alona Havel; Kerchak, Rob Konitzer; Porter, Brad Esquivel; Clayton, Scott Crane; Father, Alex Anderson; Mother, Mindy Mokszycke; Ensemble ape tribes, Tom Bebeau, Maggie Dickinson, Haley Gustafson, Bethany Krostue, Nick Lamers, Donna McVey, Emily McVey, Holden McVey, Kyle Pingel, Kevin Plekan, Aaron Thibodeau, Eleanor Vogel, Preson Vogel, Kristin Wegner, Tonie Yankowski; Ensemble dance core, Rachel Bath, Claudia Blair, Denzel Claybrooks, Katana Goss, Kris Isham, Bradley Jones, Kyle Pingel, Cole Reince, Erick Silva, Mike Stengl; Ensemble stunts, GiGi Barnes, Erin Poggemann; Tarzan backup vocal, Leland Raymond.

Production / creative: Director, scenic and lighting designer, Erick James Gyrion; assistant director, Jennifer Koroll; stage manager, Jennifer Steffen; vocal and pit orchestra direction; Todd Wegner; choreographer, Miki Wise; producer, Susan Rabideau; flight deck stage manager; Laura Winkler; custom projections; Andrew Schmitz.

***

Songs

Act I

“Two Worlds” – Tarzan, Mother, Father, Kala, Kerchak and Ensemble

“You'll Be in My Heart” – Kala and Ensemble

“Jungle Funk” – Ensemble

“Who Better Than Me?” – Young Tarzan and Terk

“No Other Way” – Kerchak

“I Need to Know” – Young Tarzan

“Son of Man” – Terk, Kala, Tarzan, and Ensemble

“Son of Man (Reprise)” – Terk and Ensemble

“Sure as Sun Turns to Moon” – Kala and Kerchak

“Waiting for This Moment” – Jane and Ensemble

“Different (Part 1 & 2)” – Tarzan and Jane

Act II

“Trashin’ the Camp” – Terk and Ensemble

“Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen” – Jane and Professor Porter

“Strangers Like Me” – Tarzan, Jane, and Ensemble

“For the First Time” – Jane and Tarzan

“Who Better Than Me? (Reprise)” – Terk and Tarzan

“Everything That I Am” – Young Tarzan, Tarzan, Kala, and Ensemble

“You’ll Be in My Heart (Reprise)” – Tarzan and Kala

“Sure as Sun Turns to Moon (Reprise)” – Kala and Tarzan

“Two Worlds (Finale)” – Tarzan, Jane, and Ensemble

***

THE VENUE: The 361-seat, two-level James W. Perry Hall features a proscenium (flat-front) stage with a substantial performance area of 36 feet wide by 86 feet deep. Acoustic clouds are part of the ceiling. On the side walls are acoustic panels of copper color that matches the woodwork stain on seat backs and arms and on decorative square and rectangular wood panels. The theater is amply equipped and fairly new. Designed as family fare, “Tarzan: The Stage Musical” was chosen in part to showcase the fifth anniversary of the $13.9 million, 52,100-square-foot Communication Arts Center. The center contains two theaters and features a spacious lobby for crowd movement and displays. A room off of the lobby houses a sculpture exhibit that may be seen during this run.

THE NAMESAKE: James W. Perry is the former dean and campus executive officer of UWFV.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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